Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Cryptogram deciphered

The opening sentence of Thomas Browne's Urn-Burial challenges the reader to look beyond mere surface appearances towards the unseen and hidden.

In the deep discovery of the subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers.

An ardent enquirer questing for fresh insight into Browne's esoteric creativity would do well to cast their eye upon the curious word which heads Browne's discourse - HYDRIOTAPHIA and ponder awhile.The six syllable word has a touch of theatricality about it, its sonority arrests the ear as if a magician's abracadabra or medical mantra. Although its a word which is commonly assumed to be an alternative title to Urn-Burial in fact it defies any dictionary definition, being an invented word; nor is there any suggestion by the author that it is an alternative title, it is not followed by the word 'or' as with Browne's various alternative titles to his  1658 diptych Discourses and its often printed with a differing letter size and/or font  in most modern publications as in the original frontispiece.

It's just possible that the word HYDRIOTAPHIA is an anagram. Browne's era was one in which all manner of word-play flourished, including the devising of anagrams. Such word-play occurred not only among literate academic circles, but also in the spheres of  military and political communication.  During the English civil war coded writing, as in the form of a cryptogram, was of extreme importance in maintaining military security when defeat or victory could be decided by the deciphering of the enemy's communications. However the construction of secret codes was not exclusive to the military, Anne Geneva noted of the wide-spread engagement in word-play throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  

'the seventeenth century was able to draw upon a long tradition of cryptography, dozens of ciphers surviving from the sixteenth century alone, although Sir T.B. was the first to use the word in English'.[1]

Browne was one of many learned and leisured gentlemen throughout seventeenth century Europe  who took an interest in secret codes, ciphers and anagrams. Of greater import Anne Geneva also recognised crucially that-  'Alchemy in particular seems to have thrived upon anagrams.'

With his penchant for the secretive, along with his deep-rooted interest in the esoteric, Sir Thomas Browne is a prime candidate for having anagrammatic inclinations; he not only possessed almost every major esoteric author associated with coded writing, including those by the Abbot Trithemius, the Italian polymath Della Porta and the Frenchman Blaise de Vignere [1] but also knew that both  the Polish alchemist Michel Sendivogius [2] and the Oxford antiquarian Elias Ashmole had published alchemical literature under anagrammatic pseudonyms.[3]

In many ways Browne is the archetypal alchemist, he possessed an 'elaboratory' where he conducted numerous experiments, many of which are recorded in his encyclopaedia, including an experiment in which he suspended a magnetic pendulum above a circular table with an alphabet marked out around its circumference. He also experimented with various acids including Vitriol and was doubtlessly familiar with the near commonplace advisory derived from the initial letters of the word V.I.T.R.I.O.L. -  Visita Interiorem Terrae Rectificandoque Invenies Occultum Lapidem  which  can loosely be translated as advice to -

Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying, you will find the hidden stone.

an aphorism which bears close comparison to the opening sentence of Urn-Burial.

By rising to the challenge of the cryptic and acknowledging that the hidden world beyond appearances was a vital preoccupation of Hermetic philosophers such as Browne, essential clues can   be acquired assisting deciphering the cryptogram HYDRIOTAPHIA; when deciphered it not only highlights fundamental themes of the diptych discourses, namely death and birth, but also reveals a rare utterance from Browne's alter-ego persona.

If one heeds the literary critic Peter Green's observation that,  'Sir Thomas is his own most fascinating subject of study, and knows it’ one may with confidence extract the letter I , the most frequently used word in the English language, to begin constructing a full sentence. Having identified our subject we next need an active word such as a verb or adverb.

The opening dedicatory address in Urn-Burial to his patron, the Norfolk landowner Thomas le Gros, provides further clues to deciphering the second word of the anagram. Remembering that it was the discovery and unearthing of several burial urns at Walsingham, North Norfolk, which was the inspiration for the composition of the Discourse, the critic Joan Bennett described the physician's excitement at this 'hit of fate' and archaeological discovery which fired his imagination, scholarship and creativity thus -

'he must have rejoiced when, ten years after he had completed his magnum opus, the discovery of the Urns at Old Walsingham offered him a subject so appropriate to his interest and gifts'.[4]

Browne describes the archaeological find as a 'hit of fate' and considered the unearthing of  the Saxon-era  urns to be opportune, prompting him to contemplate time and antiquity. The initial spark of an archaeological discovery kindled Browne's imagination and  fired-up the full force of his literary creativity  to write upon the themes of  time, mortality and eternity.

Consulting Browne's contemporary, the seventeenth century lexicographer and dictionary-compiler Henry Blount's Glossographia  assists ones enquiry further. Blount includes the words 'seasonable', 'opportune',  'appropriate'  'timely' and 'tidy'  to describe a singular, lucky or unlucky event . Indeed, a miniature Dictionary published circa 1900 in the author's possession has under the entry Tidy, the definitions seasonable, clever, neat, spruce. Although the English language has altered considerably in three and a half centuries, the word 'tidy' retains its original  'hit of fate' meaning as in the phrase, 'a tidy sum of money'. Placing our ‘hit of fate', adverb as descriptive of Browne's own  'hit of  fate' we now have an opening sentence of  ' I tidy.........'

The remaining letters in the word Hydriotaphia  form a word utterly pertinent and central to the 'twin' Discourse's themes of death and rebirth -  PHARAOH .

In Urn-Burial Browne condemns all monuments to the dead as vain-glory including those built by the Egyptian Pharaoh's. The Pyramid is however one of the primary 'conjoining' symbols of the Discourses, for in The Garden of Cyrus the Pyramid is alluded to on several occasions as an example of the eternal, Platonic shapes and evidence of intelligent design in art and nature. The Garden of Cyrus also attempts to define several archetypes,  'the wise ruler' notably in its titular hero but also Augustus, Alexander the Great, Moses and many others are cited as examples of this archetype, including the earliest 'wise ruler'  of all, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who despite their folly of building  pyramid mausoleums for themselves were also 'thrice-great' rulers of Egyptian society, holding the combined office of  High Priest, Military leader and Law-giver.  

The significance of the hidden sentence within the word Hydriotaphia in context of the welter of esoteric literature published during the Protectorate of Cromwell cannot be ignored. Browne was a devoted Bibliophile who kept well-abreast of the latest in book publications. He was both a modest and self -effacing  physician who knew himself to also be a colossus of knowledge of European stature with the fame of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Observing the plethora of esoteric literature published in  the decade of the Protectorate, Browne may well in his intellectual pride believed himself  to be the opportune or  'tidy' Pharaoh of all  those who purported to be privy to Hermetic wisdom.

The hidden anagram sentence - 'I, tidy Pharaoh' - may have been inspired by Browne's knowledge that the antiquarian Elias Ashmole  had published his Norwich acquaintance Arthur Dee's alchemical collection Fasiculus Chemicus in 1650 under the anagram pseudonym of James Hassole (by subsitution of the letter J which is non-existent in Latin for I). The frontispiece of Fasiculus Chemicus  announced that Ashmole elected himself as 'the English Mercurius' and perhaps either as a gentle, playful rejoinder to Ashmole, or in a rare outburst of alter-ego, Browne proclaimed his own status in the Hermetic art under cover of an anagrammatic retort.

But perhaps in the final analysis it's the relationship between those who invent anagrams  to their subject which is the most revealing to study. The ingenuity of devising phrases to describe someone from an exterior arrangement of alphabet letters.There certainly are some remarkable examples of anagrams made from famous names and Wikipedia offers  an  interesting history of the anagram and many amusing examples.

Browne himself was made the subject of an anagram, 'made and sent to me by my ever honoured friend Sir Philip Wodehouse'. Sir Philip Wodehouse ingeniously extracted from the latin of the name Doctor Thomas Brouenis the phrase, Ter Cordatus bonus homo which roughly translates as -  'the three-fold great man'.

Wodehouse's anagram is a brilliant allusion to alchemy's  'thrice-greatest' founding sage, Hermes Trismegistus, connecting the Norwich physician to Hermetic philosophy as well as illustrating the high esteem  in which his contemporaries held him.

Of course, we'll never know absolutely for sure whether or not Browne coined the word Hydriotaphia as an anagram. Unless of course new evidence should surface. Nevertheless  it's possible to extract a three word sentence from this curious word which  makes allusion to a favourite study of Browne's, namely ancient Egypt and to fundamental themes of the discourses namely death and birth. It is also a bold statement made with characteristic humour of an alter-ego alias .


Although this proposed deciphering of an anagram can never be fully proven, one is none the less reminded of Browne's observation-

'The Hand of Providence writes often by Abbreviatures, Hieroglyphics or short Characters, which...are not to be made out but by a Hint or Key from that Spirit which indited them'. [6]

[1] Anne Geneva - Astrology and the seventeenth century mind  Manchester University Press 1995
[2]  Examples of coded writing author's in Browne's library include Trithemius Polygraphia S.C. p.30  no. 17 and Blaise de Vigenere Tract du Feu & du Sal  S.Cpage 32 no.22
[3] 'Another kind of verticity, is that which Angelus doce mihi jua. alias Michael Sundevogius, in a Tract De Sulphure, discovereth in Vegetables...' Browne in Bk 2 chapter 3 of P.E.
[4]  When Elias Ashmole published the alchemical writings of Browne's Norwich acquaintance, Arthur Dee, son of the elizabethan magus John Dee, he wrote under the anagrammatic pseudonym of James Hasholle (by substition of the inter-changability of the  letters I/J )
[5] Joan Bennett   Sir Thomas Browne    Cambridge University Press    1962
[6] Christian Morals Part  I  Section 25

Sunday, October 09, 2011


Giovan Pietro Birago (c.1450-1513 ) was born in Milan. In 1490 he entered the service of the leading Venetian family, the Sforza. While illustrating a Book of Hours for the Sforza, his work was stolen. October is only one of three leaves which survived the theft. In 2004 the British Library acquired October for £191,000 adding  it to their collection of  illuminated miniatures by Birago.  

October, a calendar leaf from the Sfzora Book of Hours dating from circa 1490, is a work of tempera and gold on parchment measuring 11 x 9 centimetres. In the medieval tradition of portraying the labours associated with each month it depicts peasants making wine in the background. Its foreground is dominated by horse-riding nobility engaged in hunting, accompanied by their servants, hounds and falcons. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Thomas Morley

Music can draw the hearer in chains of gold to the consideration of holy things.   - Thomas Morley

The 1711 Sales Catalogue of the library of Sir Thomas Browne records a copy of Thomas Morley's A Plaine and easie way to make Musicke (1597) as once shelved at the Norwich physician and philosopher's home. Morley's book remained in print for over 200 years and is a valuable document upon the music-making of his era.

From his humble background as the son of a Norwich brewer, Thomas Morley (1557-1602) rose to the heights of organist at Saint Paul's cathedral and was privileged to study music under William Byrd. Morley's era, the second half of the sixteenth century, saw a surge in music-making in England, in particular a near craze for the accomplishment of skilled lute-playing among gentlemen, especially courtiers. Morley's era also witnessed the popularity of secular verse sung to complex harmonies known as madrigals, of which he was a prominent composer. Morley's musical skills also catered for instrumental music-making when in 1599 he published The first book of Consort Lessons, arrangements of his and various other composer's music for broken consort; the six instruments of the broken consort consisting of lute, flute, bandora, cittern and two viols, bass and treble. The viol  family of string instruments are precursors to the violin family. To modern ears a viol consort of three to five players, can sound slightly and deliciously 'creaky' with their wide compass of enharmonic overtones. Elizabethan music-making also included performances of the  masque, an elaborate form of early theatre from which ballet and opera evolved. Masques were often performed at  the Royal Court and involved singers and instruments. Lavishly produced, they featured spectacular costumes and stage-effects.

Thomas Morley
Morley's era was one in which the so-called 'Golden Age' of English music flourished. From roughly the 1560's until Purcell's death in 1695, English music developed and established a distinctive voice,  a  'Golden Age' of musical talent which would not occur in England again until the second half of the 20th century. Besides Thomas Morley, other Elizabethan composers of note include 'the father of English music' William Byrd (1540-1623), the melancholic lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626) and the keyboard player Thomas Tomkins (1572 -1656) who incidentally, owned a signed copy of Morley's Plaine and easie way to make Musicke. Of the later Jacobean era, William Lawes (1602-43) and the industrious and pious John Jenkins (1592-1678) who may have been acquainted with Sir Thomas Browne when resident in Norfolk, are all rewarding to listen to. Today, with the revival of interest in music which pre-dates J.S. Bach, the early music composers of England are frequently recorded and performed. There's much in the catalogue of early English music well worth hearing, including Morley's madrigals along with his First book of Consort Lessons.

One wonders whether Morley played any part in the music-making festivities when Queen Elizabeth I visited Norwich in 1578. A contemporary reported of her visit -
Herewith she passed under the gate.....and the musicians within the gate, upon their soft instruments, used broken musick...The next night...there was an excellent princely mask brought before her after supper, by Master Goldingham, in the Privie Chamber; it was of gods and goddesses, both strangely and richly apparelled...Then entered a consort of musicke; viz. six musicians, all in long vestures of white scarcenet girded about them, and garlands on their heads, playing very cunningly.

Queen Elizabeth's 'Royal Progress' to Norwich in 1578 is included in the English composer Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana  which was written in the year of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953.  Act Two of Britten's opera is set against the back-drop of the Guildhall at Norwich. Elizabeth I  is welcomed by the City Recorder and then a masque is performed which she and the Royal court watch. Six dances, including a Morris dance are performed. Personifications of Time and Concord are among the principle characters in the masque who, accompanied by a chorus of rustic country maids and fishermen conclude the entertainment with a homage to the Queen.

It was a neat device of Benjamin Britten's to include a visit to Norwich by 'good Queen Bess' in his opera Gloriana. It  must be nearly 40 years ago now, when a teen-age school-boy, if I remember rightly, that our rehearsal of Noye's Fludde, a medieval  mystery play set to music by Benjamin Britten was interrupted. It was the composer himself, who dropped in to thank the boys and girls for all their hard work rehearsing his work. Britten's cantata for mixed ensemble of amateurs was first performed in Orford church in June 1958, the composer insisting that no future performances were to be made in a theatre, but only ever in churches or Halls.

Its worth noting that Browne's edition of Morley's primer on music (Sales Catalogue Page 45 number 47) is a first edition when in fact a modern edition could have been easily acquired, evidence of Browne being the consummate bibliophile and collector of rare books.  One cannot resist noting that the frontispiece illustration  to Morley's book (pictured above) depicts not only the various muses associated with  music and learning, but also the sun and moon as deities. Finally, also at the very bottom of the frontispiece illustration  holding a staff-like caduceus, there can be seen the elusive god of travel and communication, ruler of traders and thieves alike and patron of alchemy, Mercurius.